Last year, the Phillies pushed several of their trade chips to the middle of the table in an effort to acquire a top tier talent. Using Sixto Sanchez and Will Stewart to help acquire J.T. Realmuto showed that the team was willing to make a big move in an effort to help them reach the postseason. It was a move criticized at the time it happened. Many people thought that getting Realmuto alone wasn’t enough of a return for a pitcher that many prospect prognosticators put into the top tiers of pitchers in the minor leagues. Sanchez was pegged by most as the top Phillies prospect at the time and was thought to be mainly untouchable in any trade.
Yet the Phillies pulled the trigger anyway since that was the price of doing business. If they wanted to get the best, they had to trade their best and cashing in on their best trade chip was something they were obviously comfortable with. It’s possible that over the long-term, the team felt better about the potential impact on the starting rotation that Howard could make than they did about Sixto, but at the time, a lot of eyebrows were raised at the prospect of trading a pitching prospect of Sanchez’s caliber and “only” receiving a catcher in return. The team knew what they had internally when it came to Spencer Howard, but the scouting report on him prior to 2019 wasn’t exactly one that screamed “better than Sanchez!” to those of us on the outside. From Baseball Prospectus:
Howard sits a free and easy 92-96 with the fastball and regularly touches a tick or two higher, and we’ve gotten reliable though occasional reports of triple-digits. He blew through the South Atlantic League in a manner that looked a lot like Medina’s 2017 campaign. Howard throws the four-pitch starter mix, and there’s an above-average slider here along with a useful changeup and curveball. He’s a big, durable-looking guy, and just watching him on the mound, you wouldn’t expect him to have trouble handling a starter’s workload...Howard ranks below Medina because he’s around a year-and-a-half behind on the development curve—Howard’s five months older and a level lower, and he only made 14 starts in college before signing as a draft-eligible sophomore. Even considering that, it’s still a bit odd that the Phillies left him in Lakewood all season.
Compare that with the excitement that practically oozes off of the virtual page when the same group of prospect hounds discusses Sanchez.
When healthy, he regularly blasts it into the triple-digits and throws a kitchen sink of pitches that flash above-average to plus-plus. At various points we’ve seen a four-seamer, a sinker, a cutter, a slider, a slow curve, another breaking ball in between that you could call a slurve, a regular change with circle-type action, and a harder change that moves like a split-change, and they’re all good. Whether or not these are distinct pitches or flavors and manipulations on a core four-pitch arsenal is sort of irrelevant. We expect him to pick four or five eventually, and he could settle in with a monster repertoire...Sanchez has frequently been so dominant on the mound as to appear like he isn’t being challenged. He will often spend an inning or two, and sometimes even a whole game, working on refining a core offering, as we’ve also seen from past higher-end Phillies pitching prospects. He’s good enough to do this and still pitch effectively, but it does make evaluating his overall deception and sequencing tougher than we’d like. He’s also clearly much shorter than listed, which does raise the usual short guy issues like durability and fastball plane.
It’s easy to see why the Marlins would prefer Sanchez over Howard, if that was even on the table in the first place. They saw all of the reports (you can go ahead and research them; they’re all pretty much the same) and wanted someone who could potentially dominate when he’s on and healthy, something that at the time, their system did not have.
Fast forward to this offseason as the prospect lists come trickling out and all of a sudden, this trade doesn’t take on quite the same negativity as it did when it was made. For the sake of continuity, we’ll look at what BP had to say about both pitchers headed into 2020 and boy does the gap between the two not look as large as before. First, Sanchez:
The secondaries are good—not great—with the ability to throw off the timing of the hitter if he tries to cheat on the heater. The slider is short and snappy, used primarily to the glove-side where it breaks more, as opposed to flattening out on the arm-side. His changeup took a big step forward in 2019, touching 90 regularly with good sinking action as it approaches the plate. But neither the slider nor the changeup are formidable punch-out pitches.
With the straightness of the fastball, Sanchez has had to rely more on getting outs in the field than someone of his pedigree. Of the pitchers listed in our midseason top 50, and the rough draft of our forthcoming Top 101, nobody has a lower strikeout percentage than Sanchez. Given his injury history, diminutive size, low walks (good) and low strikeouts (bad), you have to begin to wonder if his future is destined for an electric late-inning relief role.
Once he did get fully healthy to end the season Howard was back to sitting mid 90s, touching 99. Howard did lose velocity during his starts, but that could potentially be attributed to his conditioning being thrown off by the injury. His top secondary pitch is his changeup, a future plus pitch with good arm-side fade that took a large step forward late in the season. Howard’s slider gives him a second plus pitch. It is a two-plane breaker, that can sometimes get a bit long and loopy. He still leans too much on his humpy curveball, which is at best an average pitch. It has been effective in the minors based on the velocity separation from the fastball, but advanced hitters will be able to read it out of his hand.
Howard repeats his delivery well, and has made big strides with consistency in pro ball. Like many young pitchers he is still working to fully make the move from control to command, but he has shown the ability to work his fastball up and his changeup to the outside of the zone.
The arm injury could have set back Howard’s timetable for the majors, but the Phillies made sure he got plenty of innings in Double-A and the AFL to close the gap. He will compete for a spot out of the Phillies rotation to open the season, but the team has expressed a desire for him to get some work in with the major league ball in Triple-A before reaching the majors.
Where before the season in 2019, there was probably a sizable gap between the two, that gap has been closed. In the recently released top 100 rankings at Baseball America, Sanchez was ranked #16 overall and Howard came in at #27, That’s quite close and will mean the two are intertwined forever.
It clearly wasn’t a mistake for the team to go and trade Sanchez (and stuff) for Realmuto. Once the backstop signs his long-term deal, he’ll be a cornerstone of the franchise for the forseeable future, someone they can build upon that will not only help them with his bat, but also with his glove. Yet there are still some whispers that it would have been better to hang on to Sanchez, particularly now with the team having little in the way of impact prospects. There is also a belief that in the coming years, the team will not have pitchers to rise to the majors that will be much more than a #3 or #4 starter, someone who might give 2-3 WAR every year. If the team wants to contend, they have to have arms that will help shut down the burgeoning offensive force in Atlanta or the defending World Series champion in Washington and right now, they just don’t have that. If they have to keep relying on the Nick Pivettas and Vince Velasquezes of the world to get Ronald Acuna out with regularity, they could be in for either some disappointed times or some very expensive times..
That’s why it’s imperative that the team does everything it can to get Spencer Howard to a level of dominance that is sustainable in the major leagues over a period of time. If they cannot and he flames out while Sanchez figures out how to stay healthy and himself dominates as a member of the Marlins, there will be a section of the fanbase that will continuously lament the move no matter what Realmuto does in the future. There will always be this question of “what if?” that looms over the franchise. Correctly or not, it’s why Sanchez and Howard will always been linked together. Let’s just hope that they chose correctly.